City Paper is not for tourists
How you feel about Hip Hop Is Dead’s title track will determine how you feel about the album. On it, Nas and producer will.i.am reuse “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” the foundation of “Thief’s Theme” from Nas’ 2004 LP Street’s Disciple. If you see this as a pitiful attempt to recapture the energy of one of Nas’ best hits since his stunning 1994 debut, Illmatic, you’ll inevitably dislike Hip Hop Is Dead. If, however, you think Nas is pointing out how hip-hop has taken re-sampling from an act of tribute to mere regurgitation, you’ll love it. Some might argue that if hip-hop is indeed dead, Nas played a hand in its demise. Since Illmatic, the Queensbridge MC’s work has often been underwhelming (see “You Owe Me”) and repetitive (see 2001’s, ahem, Stillmatic). But perhaps that makes him the rapper best positioned to create an album that makes a huge, sweeping proclamation about the state of hip-hop. From true-school lyricism to the shallow subjects of money and girls, Nas knows of what he speaks. “Where Are They Now,” which ticks off a bunch of influential nonworking rappers over a ubiquitous James Brown breakbeat, is a history lesson about hip-hop pioneers, basic enough for the kids but with a few obscure references thrown in for the old heads. “You Can’t Kill Me” and “Not Going Back,” on the other hand, point to the album’s greatest weakness: Nas is no longer the riveting first-person storyteller he once was. The former track is all hedonism and crime, and parody or not, it’s dreary. And on the latter, Nas boasts about still having an ear to the street even though he’s moved out of the ’hood, which history should have shown him is one of the worst topics a rapper can ever tackle: “On the private yacht/I’m still within earshot of it all,” he rhymes. “Black Republican” lacks the ear-drum searing gravitas that one would expect from a collab with former rival Jay-Z, but the grandiose classical backing track makes it seem otherwise—the rapper has never had a good ear for production, but when he lucks into a track that complements him, the result is always luscious. On “Hip Hop Is Dead,” Nas doesn’t seek to eulogize hip-hop so much as big-up those who are still keeping it going, pay respect to those who gave birth to it, and, of course, make himself look good in the process. If nothing else, that proves the music is still alive and kicking.